23 January 2015
3 Shevat 5775
In his State of the Union Address this week, President Obama told the story of Rebekah and Ben Ehrler of Minneapolis. One quote from a letter that Rebekah wrote to him became a theme of the address. “It is amazing,” Rebekah wrote, “what you can bounce back from when you have to. We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, hard times.”
When I heard this line, which the President repeated several times throughout the speech, I had two associations: the opening Torah stories of the book of Exodus that we will continue to read in synagogue this week and that we recall each year on Passover and each day in our prayers; and a 2013 article by Bruce Feiler in the New York Times.
One of the reasons the Exodus is such a powerful, founding story is the daily reminder that we are, indeed, free, and with that freedom comes great opportunity and responsibility. A second, but equally important, reason why we recall this story every day is to remind us of the narrative itself and of President Obama’s message. Our freedom did not come out of nowhere. We are able to have hope in the possibility of a better future because we have experienced (and continue to experience) and weathered the hardship of the past. We are (a free, empowered) strong, tight knit family (and people) who has made it through some very, hard times. This is an American story and, quintessentially, a Jewish story.
In his article “The Stories that Bind Us,” Bruce Feiler asks two opening questions: “What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?” He cites research from two Emory University psychologists about the well-being of children and the factors that keep families intact. According to the research, Feiler writes, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The ‘Do You Know?’ scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”
The importance of storytelling is even more than a way to keep a family, a people, a nation together, continuous and strong. In fact, knowing your story, knowing where you come from, and feeling a part of something that started long before you are essential to emotional well-being, resiliency, happiness, and success.
Feiler adds that the type of family story that most correlates to children’s resiliency later in life is not simply the “ascending narrative” (things were bad, we pulled ourselves up from the bootstraps, and now they’re good). Rather, the most “healthful” narrative is the “oscillating” narrative: we’ve had ups and downs, at times things have been great and at times difficult, yet we have worked hard and always stayed together. We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, hard times.
This research illustrates one of the most important arguments for choosing a Jewish high school. High school can be stressful and competitive. We are preparing students for a challenging, changing world, and they can feel the uncertainty of their future. These are four of the most formative years of children’s lives—intellectually, emotionally, morally, and spiritually. The opportunity for Jewish American teenagers to take this high school journey together with their tight-knit family, in the context of a Jewish community grounded in Jewish values and inspired by the Jewish story, is invaluable not only for the future of the Jewish people but also for the emotional well-being, happiness, and success of our students and our graduates.
In the spirit of Gann’s educational mission and our people’s oscillating story, Gann is proud to have worked closely last year with Kehillah Schechter Academy to make our school the new home of the Israel Arbeiter Gallery of Understanding. Mr. Arbeiter is one of the heroes of the Boston Jewish community, a Holocaust survivor whose life and story have inspired thousands of students, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Next Sunday, February 1, will be the rededication of the gallery here at Gann when we will also recognize the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz. Mr. Arbeiter’s life story is one of perseverance, hope, optimism, and love. He has worked tirelessly to help the generations that come after his to not only remember the Holocaust but also to lead the way for a stronger world. We are honored that Gann Academy will be the new home of the gallery, and we are proud to share it with our community and our partners, JCRC, CJP, Facing History and Ourselves, and the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Greater Boston.
*Note: In his weekly message, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote about a similar theme but focused more on the connection between moral purposefulness and storytelling.
Rabbi Marc Baker